Question: Ananias was sent to Damascus in Acts 9 to lay hands on Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul). One of the reasons he came was so that Saul could “receive the Holy Spirit.” So, did Saul receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands?–L.F.
There are several opinions from scholars as to what this means. Some insist that it is the literal indwelling of the Holy Spirit being given to Saul of Tarsus—prior to baptism—by Ananias laying hands on him. Others say basically the same thing, except they say it was the gift of miracles being given to Saul prior to his baptism by Ananias laying hands on him.
When Luke uses the phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” or “full of the Holy Spirit,” miracles (usually inspiration) are always under consideration. Examine them for yourself: John the Immerser (Luke 1:15), John’s mother, Elisabeth (Luke 1:41-45), John’s father, Zacharias (Luke 1:67-79), the apostles (Acts 2:4), the apostles again (Acts 4:31), Stephen (Acts 6:5, 7:55-56), Barnabas (Acts 11:22-24), Paul (Acts 13:9-11), and the Iconium disciples (Acts 13:52-14:1).
Understanding this, let’s now look at the evidence to come to a rational, biblical conclusion to this potential conundrum.
First, Jesus said that the purpose of Ananias’ laying hands on Saul was so he would receive his sight. That was seen in verse 12 of this same chapter (Acts 9). There was no indication in Jesus’ words that Ananias was going to give Saul the Holy Spirit.
Second, the only result of this event shown in the Bible is that Saul received his sight. After he put his hands on Saul, the Bible only records that Saul received his sight. It says nothing about him receiving the Holy Spirit. If we look at Acts 22, where Saul (who is also called Paul) is telling about this very event, we see that he doesn’t even mention the Holy Spirit at all—but he does mention receiving his sight again (Acts 22:12-13).
Third, the ability to pass on the Holy Spirit was only available to the apostles. This is shown in chapter 8, verses 14-18. Ananias was not an apostle, and so—unless he is classed as an apostle—the evidence is against his being able to pass on this gift.
Fourth, Saul was lost in his sins when Ananias laid his hands on him, and was not a candidate to receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not been baptized. This principle is seen in Acts 8:15-16. Acts 22:12-16 shows that he was still lost in sins after Ananias laid his hands on him. The Holy Spirit was promised only to those who were the obedient servants of God (Acts 2:17-18, 5:32).
Fifth, Paul makes it very clear throughout his life that he did not receive his apostleship from any man. Miracles (the gift of the Holy Spirit) and the ability to pass them on were “the signs of an apostle” (II Corinthians 12:12). Paul states that he was “an apostle—not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). All of the apostles received their miraculous ability direct from heaven (Acts 2:1-4, 4:29-31). Paul would be no different.
Sixth, we see no record of Saul performing miracles until years later. The first time we read of Saul (now called Paul) doing any miracle is in Acts 13:9-11. This is the first time where Paul is said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Now, this does not mean that Paul was unable to perform miracles prior to Acts 13, but it is supportive evidence that he did not receive the Holy Spirit when Ananias laid hands on him. There is no evidence that Saul was able to work miracles before that event.
Seventh, it took the testimony of Barnabas to convince the apostles that Saul was really a disciple of Jesus Christ. You might ask What does that have to do with anything? If Saul of Tarsus had the miraculous abilities given by the Holy Spirit at this point, it would have been very simple for him to prove to the apostles and other disciples that he was a Christian. But instead, it took Barnabas speaking on his behalf. Though not conclusive, this evidence seems to indicate that at this point Saul did not have the miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit.
Since the evidence implies that Saul did not receive the Holy Spirit when Ananias laid hands on him, what exactly did he mean when he told Saul “Jesus…has sent me so that you might…be filled with the Holy Spirit”?
Ananias’ mission was to heal and baptize Saul—to bring him into the family of God and Christ. As we’ve seen from other passages in Acts (2:17-18, 5:32), the Holy Spirit was only given to those who were servants of God, and who obey Him. Ananias came to help Saul become spiritually acceptable before God, and thus also help him become a candidate for the reception of the Holy Spirit. It was preparatory work.
 The example of Cornelius, who was a faithful servant of God under the Patriarchal Law, will be dealt with in the notes on chapters ten and eleven.
[NOTE: the answer given above is taken from our upcoming book, The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts]
-Bradley S. Cobb